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Each week at In The Past Lane, the American history podcast, host and Historian-at-Large, Edward T. O’Donnell, brings you news, stories, interviews, and special features on all things U.S. history. His aim is to be both engaging and thought-provoking, inspired by the notion that history explains the world we live in and provides insights into how to achieve a more prosperous, peaceful, and just future. So come along with us as we journey In The Past Lane.  

Aug 14, 2019

This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, I speak with historian Saul Cornell, author of “A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America.” The recent mass shootings in Dayton, OH and El Paso, TX have reignited the national debate over gun control, so this seemed like a good time to do an episode on the history of the Second Amendment. Because plunging into this history makes clear that there is a great deal of mythology around what the Founders had in mind when they wrote the Second Amendment. Exposing this mythology as something at odds with the historical record reveals that the Second Amendment does not prohibit gun control.  

In the course of our discussion, Saul Cornell explains:

The two main myths about the Second Amendment that gun rights advocates invoke, namely: 1) that the amendment was intended to allow the citizenry to rise up and overthrow the federal government by force of arms if they deemed it tyrannical and 2) that it established an individual’s right to possess and bear arms.

Why the framers of the Constitution were chiefly concerned about the need for strong state militias and not an individual’s right to arms.   

How gun control in the late-18th and early 19th century was both extensive and intrusive.

How this regulation was justified in the name of an ideal the Founders subscribed to: the right of citizens to live in a peaceful society.  

How the Second Amendment underwent a radical reinterpretation in the 1970s, one that emphasized a libertarian claim to a near absolute right of an individual to possess and bear arms.  

And, finally, an assessment of the current state of the gun control movement.

Recommended reading

Saul Cornell, A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America (Oxford U. Press)

Saul Cornell, Whose Right to Bear Arms Did the Second Amendment Protect?

Saul Cornell, “The Second Amendment Case for Gun Control,” The New Republic, August 4, 2019

Saul Cornell, “Gun Anarchy and the Unfree State: The real history of the Second Amendment,” The Baffler, October 3, 2017.

Jeffrey Toobin, “Politics Changed the Reading of the Second Amendment—and Can Change It AgainThe New Yorker, August 5, 2019

More info about Saul Cornell - website 

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Music for This Episode

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)

Hyson, “Signals” (Free Music Archive)

Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

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